Thursday, January 30, 2014

Atlanta traffic

I hear a lot of snickering at what 2" of snow did to Atlanta.

If the reports I read were accurate, some of the congestion came from jack-knifed trucks. I'd bet the long-haul truckers had no trouble on a mere 2", but the short-haul Georgia drivers may not have seen snow in years. A few slips here and there could tie up a lot of traffic. Car accidents would be a lot more frequent than truck accidents, but they don't usually tie up as many lanes.

I remember what just a couple of accidents did when I was taking some training just north of Atlanta. I'd a crazy notion of driving to dinner somewhere after the class, and discovered that it took an hour and a half to go a quarter of a mile because of people trying to route around the highway. I finally got off in a lumberyard parking lot, walked back to the hotel, walked to dinner, and came back for the car later. In the resulting miles of congestion will be some cars without enough gas to keep the heater running (and no blankets), so some drivers will abandon in the road and walk. If three abreast follow the leader away from their cars, nobody behind will move until the tow trucks come, so they may as well bail also. Crystallization ensues.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Relevant after all

The reading cycle has come back to the book of Proverbs. It isn't a simple book, as it contains long passages in praise of wisdom and several collections of proverbs--some noble and some self-interested. Some proverbs are repeated with variations, and some sound like coinages made as a summary for a conversation or a court case.

A few seem irrelevant in a land with a national bureau of standards: "Differing weights and differing measures, both of them are abominable to the LORD." Except that today I remembered about the speck and the log.

Congregational singing again

I've complained before that "worship team" bands typically overamp their instruments, and the drum is generally the loudest thing around.

I have to be fair. This Sunday the music was beautiful--as is appropriate for a broadcast service. Even the drum seemed somewhat muted. Compared to the pipe organ.

They have an excellent music program, by the way, and if the church was as full as it used to be the congregation might fill the mix better (quite a few very skilled singers out there!). But when a big pipe organ crescendos, it doesn't matter what key you sing in.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Cat toys

Have you noticed that in the midst of a flurry of snatching and clawing and biting at the feathery bit you dangle at the end of the cat toy, the cat will freeze and shoot you a look that questions: "Are you being entertained enough by this?" The toy has two ends...

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Slower thinking

If you search a larger and larger database, the search time takes longer and longer as you sequentially look through entries. This is such an excellent model of the parallelized and multi-processing human brain that the Telegraph can tell us that Brains of elderly slow because they know so much "The brains of older people only appear to slow down because they have so much information to compute, much like a full-up hard drive, scientists believe. "
A team at Tübingen University in Germany programmed a computer to read a certain amount each day and learn new words and commands.
When the researchers let a computer “read” only so much, its performance on cognitive tests resembled that of a young adult.
But if the same computer was exposed to the experiences we might encounter over a lifetime – with reading simulated over decades – its performance now looked like that of an older adult.
Often it was slower, but not because its processing capacity had declined. Rather, increased “experience” had caused the computer’s database to grow, giving it more data to process – which takes time.

I didn't look up who was on the team. I'm embarrassed for them. Their explanation that the elderly have more to process may be accurate, but their model has nothing to do with anything, and was a waste of time. If you have a ginormous database, you have to jump through all kinds of hoops if you want results fast. Water is wet, therefore wood is brown.

Monday, January 20, 2014


The real argument against aristocracy is that it always means the rule of the ignorant. For the most dangerous of all forms of ignorance is the ignorance of work.
Chesterton, New York Sun 1918

Leading worship

At the "worship team and family" night last Saturday, one of the questions asked of the director was roughly along the lines of "What was the most profound worship experience you've known?"

He replied that the time's he's felt God moving most strongly were times at other churches when he wasn't leading.

This is about what we'd expect. If you have to concentrate on the form of the service; if you are responsible for making it function--to that extent your mind is not focused on God. A musician can try to compensate by "really getting into the music," but youth group leaders to the contrary, the resulting emotional high isn't necessarily spiritual.

I used to run monitors, and remember one communion service. We were all asked to pray and I did--and then the band started in on the meditation music with the monitors still muted. Sorry about that...

Giving up on full emotional participation in order to serve the others may be wonderful spiritual service and worship, but it isn't going to feel like it. Ministers do burn out sometimes.

In this morning's part of Luke I read that Anna served in the temple with prayer and fasting. She wasn't a priest, so I wonder what she did.

The temple must have been an extremely busy place, with people bringing or buying animals, animals sacrificed over here, burnt offerings over there, cooked offerings being distributed, arrivals and departures, groups praying, individuals praying... She might have been helping with the logistics, or assisting with women's groups. Or she might have been spending all her time praying.

I wonder what the busy priests thought of her, always there, always praying. Did they envy the time she could spend praying? Or think only about their next task? Or were they able to be grateful that they could enable her to spend her time praying?

Me? I tended to think about the next monitor task when it was task time, and try to dispose myself for worship when there was a lull--I didn't think too much about other people except as I was trying to keep them supplied. That third option is hard to achieve.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Some things don't change much

If there is one thing worse than the modern weakening of major morals, it is the modern strengthening of minor morals. Thus it is considered more withering to accuse a man of bad taste than of bad ethics.
Cleanliness is not next to godliness nowadays, for cleanliness is made essential and godliness is regarded as an offence. A playwright can attack the institution of marriage so long as he does not misrepresent the manners of society, and I have met
Ibsenite pessimists who thought it wrong to take beer but right to take prussic acid.

The usual suspect, lamenting his inability to draw on the ceiling while in bed and, almost as an aside, described the future. Or the present. Or the past. The names change, but the attacks are similar.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Smelling part 2

Following up on an earlier post about human smelling, have a look at the report on the extensive language of smells among the Jahai. It isn't obvious if they can smell better (like the Tsimane), or are simply developed a better language. Repeating the latter study might tell, although it is possible that having a language of descriptions available makes you more alert.

Is there any analog for other sense? I don't think music lessons for those who don't make a career of it (e.g. me) give the student a better ability to perceive tones. I'd certainly not expect better hearing in general from such a specific training, and I'm having trouble thinking of what might usefully be tested for.

Thursday, January 16, 2014


Two hundred feet crunching through fresh wet snow behind the pall-bearers make a very final sound. Nobody's in a hurry but nobody's too slow. I wonder if that loud but muffled groaning would sound as ominous if the listener didn't know the context.

Adam was smart, caring, creative and playful—which sounds like all the usual platitudes, except that they were true. And he was only 41, and newlywed. And we didn't have nearly enough time with him over the years.

It isn't supposed to be like this. We don't just mourn for our loss, or rejoice for the spirit returning to his Savior. We mourn because this is a real loss, a breakdown in the intended nature of things. “All things work together for good” is not the same as “all things are good” or even that God intends all things. We get a vote in the proceedings. So do some sinister others.

When I hear the news and the ugly to-and-fro of politics and fashion trying to polarize the world into two wrong sides, I hear Gounod's chorus in the background: “et satan conduit la bal.” In the end God wins, but in the meantime the war's on.

God will make good come of this. Somehow. No clue how.

If there is any choice in the matter, I'd rather my funeral be the “we commit our brother”/”ashes to ashes” version. We rarely do better. And I see value in standing by as the casket is lowered, and at least trying to throw in a handful of dirt. It's painful, but real and final, and I think it better than walking away from a coffin still visible and uncommitted to the earth. Maybe it hurts too much to work that symbol, but it is better to know the hurt than hide it.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Keeping time, time, time

Over at Maggie's Farm there's a link to an article on current thinking on the nature of time in physics.

The headliners are too eager to say "time is an illusion" or "time does not exist."

It is more accurate to say that there are descriptions (so far unverified, esp. models that involve string theory) that are independent of time. Claims that time can be an "emergent" quantity are not yet supported by examples. The "holographic dual" model (Maldacena's; read the article) maps processes on the boundary to events inside the volume in an interesting analog to classical EandM, but it remains to be verified, and that a model of it links quantum entanglement on the boundary to space-time structure within doesn't mean the model means anything.

Feynman famously wrote the equation that described all physics: "U=0". Of course the details of what goes into "U" are a bit more complicated, and not all of them are known. That's my take-away from the article: there are very interesting symmetries under study (physicists love symmetries), and as usual some are time-independent. Time as we know it is a perfectly fine coordinate when describing human life, but things get pretty weird at tiny time scales or huge energy densities at which "time" is harder to understand. (e.g. orbit a rotating black hole)

The thing about duals is that both representations are good, they just emphasize different aspects of the situation. Sort of like old familiar coordinate transformations--polar coordinates make studying rotations easier, but the old x/y/z description works too.

So no, time is not an illusion. But read the article anyway.

Saturday, January 11, 2014


This article on community treatment of the mentally ill in Geel is very interesting, though frustratingly short on details about triage and about those who drop out of the system--there have to be some. I'd wondered what non-western-medical approaches there were, and how they worked and had never heard of this example from Christendom.
Townspeople started to house them in their homes, farms and stables. During the Renaissance, Geel became famous as a place of sanctuary for the mad, who arrived and stayed for reasons both spiritual and opportunistic. Some pilgrims came in hope of a cure. In other cases, it seems that families from local villages took the chance to abandon troublesome relatives whom they couldn’t afford to keep. The people of Geel absorbed them all as an act of charity and Christian piety, but also put them to work as free labour on their farms.

The "free labour" comment is a bit snarky. IIRC the Salvation Army finds that the people they help get more benefit if the assistance is conditioned on some labor (if possible, and tailored to the individual, of course. And of course in Madison this ran foul of minimum wage labor laws since the powers that be regarded it as a normal wage transaction rather than therapy.)

I'd written before that my thinking about how to deal with the homeless (the men mostly either mentally ill or addicts or both) was converging to something like "spending a couple of months in a monastery." The difference in wealth and position between the newcomers and old is small, the lifestyle is disciplined, the community has clear expectations that are not that hard to fulfill within the monastery, and there is plenty of useful physical labor to provide a realization of accomplishment and keep the idle body from moldering the mind.

But it sounds like the old Geel of small farmers would work too: tight community, a commitment to following Jesus and take in a stranger; the natives were obviously richer (they owned their farms) but worked hard to make them go; there was plenty of simple useful physical labor that the slower visitors could learn...

Community, commitment, simplicity, physical labor--from this simple layman's perspective those things would help the folks in the upper part of the distribution of homeless and mentally ill, maybe not enough to become independent but enough to have a role and be respected for their contribution. The low end I'm certain needs more radical help or intervention. But--here's the disadvantage of being a layman--I've no notion of what the proportions are, and a number-free article doesn't help much.

In any event the limiting factor is going to be the number of "monasteries". See what happened to Geel:

The limiting factor is not demand but supply. Few families are now able or willing to take on a boarder. Few now work the land or need help with manual labour; these days most are employed in the thriving business parks outside town, working for multinationals such as Estée Lauder and BP. Dual-income households and apartment-living mean that most families can no longer offer care in the old-fashioned way. People remain proud of the tradition, and credit it with giving Geel a broad-minded and tolerant ethos, one that has made it attractive to international businesses and visitors (these days it is probably best known for its annual reggae festival). But the town is no exception to the march of modernity and the irreversibly loosening social ties that come in its wake.

Modern aspirations — the increasing desire for mobility and privacy, timeshifted work schedules, and the freedom to travel — disrupt the patterns on which daily care depends. Increasing wealth is also a disincentive: most of the burden of care always fell on the poorer families, who counted on the supply of free labour and state payments to lift them above subsistence.

Would I be willing to take in strangers this way?

My answer is: "As my community and family life are currently structured, no." If it is just me and My Better Half providing the community and expectation, we can't do it. And I have a desk job; there's not much requirement for useful physical labor around here. (Scraping sidewalks and turning the garden dirt are intermittent tasks.) And other excuses--all true and all substantive. But suppose such a community of simplicity were to begin forming. Would I move and join? Even setting aside my family obligations; probably not. I like the kind of work I do and I'm good at it; absent a clear calling I'll try to keep doing it.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Patron of bloggers

I too will have my say; I too will tell what I know.

For I am full of words, and the spirit within me compels me;

inside I am like bottled-up wine, like new wineskins ready to burst.

I must speak and find relief; I must open my lips and reply.

Mea culpa

"The world deserves my insight, and I must out with it or bust." About 25 years ago I noticed how much of the Bible study I was in was "me talking." I had to make a conscious effort to shut up and not bring every discussion point to its maximum precision. I still have to make that effort.

Blogging, unfortunately, is not usually much of a conversation. The temptation to be the final word on subjects makes it even less of one. Linking feels derivative, but restating in your own words ... "Small wit is theirs, in shopworn phrases dressed, What oft was thought, and twice as well expressed."

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Inverse white coat effect

You probably heard of this one: blood pressure is higher in the doctor's office than when measured outside. Something about worry and authority figures...

I seemed to have the opposite effect. Mine read lower at the doc's than at home. Was I reminded of my mother (a nurse) and comforted there?

Not exactly.

It was an artifact of furniture. The nurse always took my pressure on the right arm, since the chairs are at the left of the desks, and at home the right-handed me found it more convenient to take it on the left. It turns out the readings are not the same; the right is inconsistently lower. Not by enough to worry about (which would be consistently >10mm Hg on diastolic), but enough to confuse me over the years.

Try it yourself. It seems to be fairly common. (And if you repeat the measurement on the same side without waiting, the values are lower--apparently the arm takes a few minutes to recover.) Of course the highest values are the real ones. Unfortunately.

A T-Rex grows in Brooklyn

Over at XKCD the author answers what-if questions. This week's is "If a T-rex were released in New York City, how many humans/day would it need to consume to get its needed calorie intake?" If you haven't seen the answers in this series, go spend a little while and have fun.

The first question I thought of was how long the T-Rex would last.

For the purposes of the exercise, assume that the city government is paralyzed and the State and Feds are tangled in legal questions about endangered species, so the citizens are on their own.

NY has some issues with citizens owning guns (the Sullivan Act had more to do with politicians protecting their pet street gang supporters than public safety), and something big enough to stop an elephant isn't found in every local Walmart. So, what do they do?

If the net and cellphones are still working, put together a tracking system. Malicious folk will try to subvert it with fake sightings, but I think a majority rule evaluation and attentive administrators will be able to keep it real.

Then pick weapons.

A half dozen guys with 30-06's from a 3'rd floor window might do enough damage in a half a minute to make the T-Rex wish it hadn't chased the Time Traveler.

Get large pile of meat from a butcher and poison it, and have some brave soul haul it to a street ahead of the beast. Then wait and hope.

A dozen lads with Molotov cocktails and motorbikes.

Hijack a dump truck and run it in reverse to break his leg. Tricky, because he can probably turn fast enough to get that tail in motion, but ...

Yes, I'm punchy. Why do you ask?


The new movie "her" (it doesn't sound that interesting) has the thesis that a man falls in love with an AI. I gather the AI programmers are getting more and more sophisticated, and of course the speech recognition and voice reconstruction is better and better. And if it talks like a woman... um, no. It may be a good parody, but the AI is a predictable construct.

I gather Frank Herbert wanted to avoid predicting the future of computing and instead deal entirely with living characters, so in Dune's Orange Catholic Bible it says "Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind." One of our little gods is intellect--it is an article of faith that we know more and are wiser than all humanity before us. So I suppose we like to construct idols of intellect. But it isn't logical to draw conclusions about the nature of humans' intelligence from the nature of imitations.

Rocky planets

Included in the findings are five new rocky planets ranging in size from ten to eighty percent larger than Earth. Two of the new rocky worlds, dubbed Kepler-99b and Kepler-406b, are both forty percent larger in size than Earth and have a density similar to lead. The planets orbit their host stars in less than five and three days respectively, making these worlds too hot for life as we know it.

"density of lead?" I think what this really means is that their estimate of the radius of a relatively dark object light-years away is 20% low. And the team studying the Kepler results probably know it. The writers at SciTechDaily didn't.

I'm still astonished at how much we've learned about planets since I first started ready Bradbury.

FWIW, when I tried to read the report the first time I fumble-fingered the Back button when the PDF wasn't done loading. I promptly clicked Forward, but that was probably a mistake, because I was inadvertently imitating the "prospective loading" of some browsers that triggers the arXiv anti-robot software. I wound up blocked until they responded to my email.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Special lesson

εἰς ἃ ἐπιθυμοῦσιν ἄγγελοι παρακύψαι

“Teacher? I need some help here.” In the ceaselessly moving class no two students looked remotely alike. The questioner was so pale as to seem invisible.

“Certainly. Is it the Morfe you have trouble understanding?”

“No, I think I can wrap my mind around them. Like Michael. He is challenge, and everywhere there is challenge he's there.”

“Do not forget that he also is Michael and as alive and aware as you are.”

“You're right. I do have trouble keeping both in mind at once.”

“You always will. I still have trouble myself.”

The students' slower dance thought this over.

The pale pupil continued: “It is the Mudones that utterly confuse me. To begin with, how can they be and then not be? That's backwards. And nature is being is life. Do they lose their nature? And...”

“One question at a time,” the Teacher laughed—or something a little like laughter. “Some of this is easy. They share a nature, but instead of each being a unique kind, they unite the shared nature with portions of the non-knowing mud. Since the nature of the mud includes separability, there can thus be many of them.”

“That's odd. But how can the union fail and they not be? How can that power just vanish?”

The little group respected the Teacher's dimming.

“I do not know,” he finally said. “It is like the lost Morfe and Edoli.”

The pupil with the glowing green rings signaled for attention. “Question: Are the Mudones also lost, but because of the mud it does not happen at once?”

“Wait,” said another. “What does 'at once' mean?”

“Examine section 3 on actions of the non-knowing, the first limit case,” Green Rings answered.

“That is almost certainly part of the reason,” said the Teacher, “But there is more. Something is happening: the Glorious One (blessed be he) has intervened.”

“Tell!” they called.

“Let us ask an eyewitness to do that. Gabriel!”

Gabriel never fails to capture your attention. The pupils repeated their request, but sounded much more subdued.

“Please tell us what the Glorious One is doing with the Mudones.”

“He has spoken to them. I have been sent many times and spoken to many different Mudones. They move against their nature to their own destruction, and He gave warnings and directions.”

“Does 'destruction' mean not-being?”

“It is worse, because their union is contradicted. They call it suffering. As you see here,” as Gabriel illuminated the far end of the Mudone line for them, “In the end their contradictions are folded on themselves and isolated from everything.”

He went on. “The Glorious One became one of them.”

The Teacher, startled, interjected “He became one of them? A portion of mud was united with the Glorious One? Then that mud is forever blessed—where is it?”

“The others destroyed it, and Him.”

“That is not possible. He cannot not-be; He above all cannot contradict His own union. Nothing would be.” Green Rings objected.

“He was and He did. The union was remade, and then withdrawn. And then He established a new pneumos union with the Mudone nature; with the spirits of those who sometimes clung to Him. They often try to break the pneumos union too.”

“This makes no sense,” said the Teacher. “How does being contradicted and destroyed help anything?”

“I do not understand it either. But as you saw in the end, not all of them were lost. What He remade works.”

“Does he remake a broken pneumos union too? The lost Edoli broke theirs too,” the pale pupil ventured.

“I have not been told.”

“I do not like to look at the Mudones,” winced the student with three wings. “There is too much wrong.”

“Most are wrong,” agreed Gabriel. “Some are unendurably blessed. Blessing and wrong go mixed there.”

“How can these things be together?”

“When it is ripe we may hear it from the Mudones. If you come to understand it, please explain it to me,” said Gabriel, and he was gone.

The Teacher looked at his pupils. “May it be ripe soon. For now, apparently we need to review section 3.”

Thursday, January 02, 2014


I went with Eldest Son to see the Desolation of Smaug tonight.

You know the movie: inspired by The Hobbit and loosely based on Tolkien's characters. Except for the elf-maiden warrior.

The pacing was much tighter than the sloppy first movie, and of course Smaug was an excellent chiefest of calamities. Gandalf paying a call on Dol Guldur works pretty well cinematically, though the method is a tad improbable.

I have to cut Jackson some slack (despite the Elf-Maiden-Warrior). He is trying to tie together three books, with the titular one a light-hearted story without a lot of care for realism or continuity. The dwarves in the book by and large survive all dangers spectacularly easily, and there isn't much attempt to distinguish the dwarves or illustrate what makes them tough fighters.(*) So to have any sort of continuity of character you have to change the situations and plot in significant ways, and ditch most of the light-heartedness in favor of comic relief. And all the poetry.

Even the unmotivated triangle with the EMW can play a role in the continuity, as ES predicts she will die beside the dwarf in the last movie and I predict her example will effect the beginnings of a change in heart in Legolas. Still, there are other ways to do this.

If you are willing to regard it as "inspired-by" and let go any knowledge of physics or physiology, it is fun. Thorin is well-done. And Paulines are tied to railroad tracks all over the place, so to speak.

(*) The book never quite explains how a dozen dwarves are going to deal with a dragon, or can be comparable to hundreds of fighting men.